In The Essential Zohar, Rav Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Centre International and the spiritual leader of contemporary Kabbalah around the turn of the 20th century, wrote, “No idea in Kabbalah is more important than the true meaning of fear.” At first glance, Berg’s proclamation might seem out of place, since Kabbalah tends to encompass such a positive, hopeful set of ideals. As Berg explains, the true meaning of fear in Kabbalah differs strongly from what most people expect it to mean.

We tend to think of fear as a negative emotion, the source of anxiety and discouragement. Kabbalah instead presents fear as the primary motivator of every righteous thought and deed in the universe. To understand this surprising portrayal of fear, we need to understand the three types of fear described in the Zohar, Kabbalah’s main text. The first type of fear involves the things we hold dear in our lives on earth: our home, our health, our friends, and our possessions. Fearing the loss of any of the above does not qualify as fear in Kabbalah. Similarly, Kabbalah considers fear of damnation, or any type of consequence in the afterlife, an unacceptable application of the concept of fear. Kabbalah refers to fear of loss in the material world and in the world hereafter as “evil fear.”

The third type of fear is the only fear kabbalists must honor and cultivate, and that’s the fear of God. In The Essential Zohar, Berg insists that kabbalists replace the word “fear” with “awe” in describing the emotion they should feel when contemplating God. Though “fear of God” appears in the Old Testament and in the Zohar, Berg believes the phrase was intended to convey a feeling of respect and admiration, not worry or concern. Awe in the face of God, the third fear described in the Zohar, is the most powerful gift God gives us. It is the awareness that God is the source of all the energy, wisdom, and strength in the universe.

Berg views this awareness as the key to kabbalistic faith, the beacon that keeps followers loyal to their only goal: bridging the gap between the perfect world that God initially created and the broken world that human beings inherited after God withdrew. By always remaining in awe of God’s power and self-sacrifice, kabbalists should never indulge in doubt or self-pity. Instead, they should draw inspiration from God’s power and achievement and strive to honor God by restoring its wholeness.